When it comes to changing government in Hawaii, people seem to know where they want to go, but they’re leery of getting into the only vehicle available to take them there.

That’s the frustrating reality revealed in Civil Beat’s latest polling.

By wide margins, voters favor establishing statewide citizen initiative, term limits for legislators, all-mail balloting and a Hawaii lottery.

The Legislature has failed to deliver on any of these. But delegates to a state constitutional convention might be more open to the ideas.

The question of holding a ConCon is on the general election ballot, and our polling shows that voters like the concept, but more still plan to vote “no” than “yes.”

That defies logic, but hardball politics often does. And the fact is, the state’s power brokers are working hard to convince voters that heading down the road of a ConCon is a risky ride.

 

They have the money to frequently run a TV ad that delivers this simplistic but effective message: Local government is already doing an inadequate job on the basics because it’s hurting for cash, so we can’t afford a ConCon.

It goes on to flat-out state that the ConCon would cost $55 million. Wrong. There are several scenarios in which the price would be far less, and no one knows for sure what budget the Legislature would adopt for the convention.

Alas, no pro-ConCon campaign exists to fire back with its own ads setting the record straight. There’s no money behind this power-to-the-people sentiment.

It doesn’t fit as snugly into a 30-second TV spot, but opponents have also raised the fear that a ConCon could undo the accomplishments of prior ConCons.

Let’s distill that argument: We shouldn’t do this because it’s worked so well in the past.

The 1968 ConCon established the collective bargaining rights of public employees. The 1978 ConCon created the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, helped ensure the survival of the Hawaiian language, protected important agricultural land and enshrined water rights.

Think of those conventions as two phases of trailblazing for the common good. Now ConCon opponents say we shouldn’t organize another work party to plunge farther ahead — we might just screw up the paths we’ve already cleared.

Some even say that the trail is finished, that our state constitution is as good as it gets. For months they’ve breezily contended that no one has come up with specific reasons why we should have another ConCon.

It’s almost as if they don’t live in a state where new luxury condos keep going up while desperately needed affordable housing languishes. Where the cost of living forces many people to work multiple jobs. Where homeless encampments proliferate. Where Big Labor, Big Business and career politicians have a stranglehold on power within just one viable political party.

A ConCon could address numerous issues,  including:

Term limits: We already have them for governor, lieutenant governor and county offices. ConCon delegates could let voters decide if they should also apply to legislators — something the Legislature will never do on its own.

A state lottery: Now that the state Supreme Court has invalidated the proposed constitutional amendment allowing the use of property taxes for education, what about a lottery with proceeds devoted to our underfunded schools?

How we vote: Whatever their true political persuasion, practically all of Hawaii’s elected leaders call themselves Democrats, meaning our primaries settle almost all the races. There are other ways of running primaries, such as top-two voting or ranked choice that could lead to more competitive runoffs in the general election.

Meanwhile, the Legislature has long resisted the commonsense conversion to statewide all-mail voting, taking only modest steps in that direction.

Campaign finance reporting: Hawaii is woefully inadequate in its timing requirements for fundraising and spending reports of candidates and political action committees. There is not a single deadline for the candidates themselves to file those reports until just seven days before the election — a couple of weeks after mail ballots have been sent out.

This is clearly a benefit to well-funded candidates and PACs, and a hindrance to people wanting to know who supports a candidate or ballot measure before they vote.

Access to public records: Hawaii is the worst state in the nation when it comes to timely decisions on disputes over open records and open meetings. The state Office of Information Practices often takes years to issue a decision.

At its last session, the Legislature rejected Senate Bill 3092 that would have required the OIP to resolve all cases within six months, something that several other states already do.

Open meetings: Hawaii’s requirements for open government meetings are contained in the Sunshine Law. It applies to all levels of government — except the Legislature, which often prefers to operate behind closed doors.

Lobbyist reform: Almost every legislative session, numerous bills from good government groups or the State Ethics Commission are proposed to tighten restrictions on lobbyists who spend millions of dollars to influence lawmaking at the Capitol. They almost always fail, usually without receiving hearings.

Surreptitious legislating: Gut-and-replace is the all-too-common legislative custom of removing a bill’s content and replacing it with new legislation, often with little or no relation to the original measure’s purpose — and with little or no opportunity for the public to comment on the new bill.

Above all, citizen initiative: Not all of these issues would need to be addressed with constitutional amendments. That is why a ConCon would be an unqualified success if it only proposed one amendment: that the people of Hawaii be given the right to go over the Legislature’s head when necessary with a statewide citizen initiative process.

Every other western state already offers this option for gathering petition signatures and taking proposals directly to voters. It’s a game-changer, because when politicians know their control over pubic policy has limits, they’re more open to listening to the people and not just financial supporters.

The opportunity for a constitutional convention comes along just once a decade.

We can vote “yes” and get to work on making Hawaii a better place. Or we can stick our heads in the sand for another 10 years and pretend that this really is as good as it gets.

Thoughts on this or any other story? Write a Letter to the Editor. Send to news@civilbeat.org and put Letter in the subject line. 200 words max. You need to use your name and city and include a contact phone for verification purposes.

You can also comment directly on this story by scrolling down a little further. Comments are subject to approval and we may not publish every one.

A message to our readers

Civil Beat is a nonprofit newsroom. Without your support, our stories don’t just go unread – they go untold. This year, Civil Beat is a proud participant in NewsMatch – the nation’s largest fundraising campaign to increase support for nonprofit news organizations like Honolulu Civil Beat. Now until December 31st, a group of national foundations will match each individual donation to Civil Beat, dollar-for-dollar, up to $1,000. Now is your chance to double your impact!

About the Author